Studying chimpanzees trained to use treadmills, a team of anthropologists has gathered new evidence suggesting our earliest apelike ancestors started walking on two legs because it required less energy than getting around on all fours.
The research will appear in the July 24 print edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"When our earliest ancestors started walking on two legs, they took the first steps toward becoming human," said lead researcher Michael Sockol of UC Davis. "Our findings help answer why."
"This is the first time anyone has succeeded in studying energetics and biomechanics in adult chimps," said Sockol, who worked for two years to find an animal trainer willing to coax adult chimps to walk on two legs and to "knucklewalk" on all fours on the sort of treadmill found in most gyms. The five chimps also wore face masks used to help the researchers measure oxygen consumption.
While the chimps worked out, the scientists collected metabolic, kinematic and kinetic data that allowed them to calculate which method of locomotion used less energy and why. The team gathered the same information for four adult humans walking on a treadmill.
The researchers found that human walking used about 75 percent less energy and burned 75 percent fewer calories than quadrupedal and bipedal walking in chimpanzees. They also found that for some but not all of the chimps, walking on two legs was no more costly than knucklewalking.
"We were prepared to find that all of the chimps used more energy walking on two legs -- but that finding wouldn't have been as interesting," Sockol said. "What we found was much more telling. For three chimps, bipedalism was more expensive, but for the other two chimps, this wasn't the case. One expended about the same energy walking on two legs as on four. The other used less energy walking upright."